The Discoverers The late historian Daniel Boorstin once said, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I have found that Christians are not immune from this obstacle to real discovery. When it comes to teaching from the Scripture and the Christian tradition the real obstacle in people is not ignorance. In fact, a person who knows there is a lot that they don’t know is often very teachable. The issue is really whether or not they want to discover something they do not know. But a person who thinks that already know a great deal has the illusion of knowledge.

When I am asked what the greatest value of a theological education is I always answer, “It shows you just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn.” I am prepared to argue that a person can be a great learner, and a great teacher, who has little or no formal training. I am not prepared to say that “self-taught experts” are the real solution to the church’s need for gifted teachers.

Daniel Boorstin also said that America was a “democracy of amateurs, a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge.” But America is now led by a professional class called the career politician. This, in my view, is a major problem with Congress as we now experience it. The results of this professional class arrangement are driving the people further and further from their government. The same is very often true in the typical church. The professional class is the clergy, or the theologians, and they are often there so that the rest of us can feel comfortable when we do not discover anything for ourselves.

As I see it there are two great dangers for American Christians. First, the tendency of far too many is to allow professionals to think for them. If they are comfortable with the teaching of certain professionals they can easily become deluded with a sense of security. But the opposite danger is very real too. A little knowledge can make some people very proud (“knowledge puffs up”). I am amazed at the books and sermons I hear from people who possess a deep sense of self-importance. They are generally given a platform because they have built up a “following” and their followers rarely stop to wonder if their heroes are genuine authorities. These authorities often develop a real unwillingness to discover anything new from serious scholars who are truly gifted teachers.

Remember, the first step to discovery is to remove the illusion of knowledge. Admitting that you don’t know as much as you think is a true gift.

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  1. Gene Redlin October 2, 2009 at 5:33 am

    This is a tension that must be felt to be understood.
    A good deep education gives foundation for discovery, but can also provide a self constructed pedestal of arrogance and unteachable spirit born of hubris that will keep the educated from truth.
    I think if you need a story from the Bible, think of Naham and the servant girl. He heard, but pride almost robbed him of his healing.
    I worry about the educated class and the idea of arrival. How much better to continue to prod and poke at assumptions in seeking the truth.
    Anything less approaches Pharisaism.

  2. the Foolish Sage October 2, 2009 at 5:52 am

    This is a keeper, John. For me, finding out how much I didn’t/don’t know was the greatest gift of seminary, but the very thing my seminary frowned upon.

  3. Bruce Newman October 2, 2009 at 7:01 am

    This is so, so true. I have been addicted to reading since I was a child. Now, at 54, all that reading has done for me, while it has certainly helped me and added to my knowledge, is show me how much I really don’t know. I now take the attitude that I have to be prepared to start from scratch on many subjects, and I don’t mind. It’s an adventure.
    There’s a book called Make It Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In it the authors refer to what they call “the curse of knowledge”. They define this to mean that people who do understand something forget what it was like not to know it. They then become impatient with those who still don’t know it, and their knowledge becomes an impediment to understanding instead of a blessing. I suppose that’s why Proverbs says that with all our getting we are to get understanding, not simply knowledge.

  4. Ray Bebee October 2, 2009 at 8:12 am

    And too many of us take as truth whatever the “professionals” tell us.

  5. jls October 2, 2009 at 8:38 am

    John mentions two dangers. I think there is also a third: being proud of one’s *lack of* formal educational credentials.(For example, some people appear to like Sarah Palin partly because she did not attend a prestigious university and was not a top student.) There is much to be said for common sense learned through life experience. But we don’t need to demonize academic achievement either. This is an undercurrent in some populist political movements and in certain parts of the church, and it is just as harmful.

  6. Nick Morgan October 4, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Great post John! One of the greatest discoveries for me as well was that the more I learned, the more I realized there was to learn. Learning has thus become a fascinating journey rather than a heavy burden. If only I had the time and energy that I had when I was younger and “knew everything”. 🙂 You are correct in stating that not everyone in our lives are as equally thrilled with our desire to learn more, it definitetly threatens pre-conceived ideas that we all have. God bless!

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